Asus’ UL30A 13.3-inch ultraportable notebook

Manufacturer Asus
Model UL30A-A1
Price (Street)
Availability Now

Netbooks are often decried for their lack of horsepower, and rightfully so. After nearly a year with an Eee PC, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just fast enough for the basics, but definitely not peppy enough to fill in as my only mobile PC.

What netbook detractors rarely acknowledge is that the genre’s low-power underpinnings usually translate to exceptional battery life. It’s easy to squeeze more than five hours of run time from the average six-cell netbook. Several systems are even capable of running for seven or more hours in the real world. That’s not quite a full working day, of course, but it’s significantly better than we’ve traditionally seen from notebooks—especially ones trending toward the netbook end of the price spectrum.

Recently, a wave of new notebooks based on Athlon Neo and Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) Core 2 processors have brought a big step up in performance along with still-affordable prices in the $600-800 range. These systems carry other perks in tow, such as larger screens, nearly full-size keyboards, and free Windows 7 upgrades. They’ve done it without bloating beyond traditional ultraportable dimensions, too.

We’ve tested numerous members of this new breed of budget notebooks, and those based on AMD CPUs haven’t offered impressive battery life. The CULV-based systems look considerably more promising, as evidenced by the five-hour run times we observed with Acer’s 13.3″ Aspire Timeline. That sort of longevity is still short of what the best netbooks can achieve, but it’s certainly a better balance of performance and battery life for some needs.

So what if you could get a budget ultraportable with CULV performance and better-than-netbook battery life? Is that something you’d be interested in?

Asus is betting your answer is yes, because its latest UL30A 13.3″ thin-and-light notebook sports an eight-cell battery that promises up to 12 hours of juice. That claim has the usual asterisk attached; however, the extra battery cells do leave room for optimism. A dozen hours is undoubtedly too ambitious, but eight might just be attainable. And you’d be getting that from a $750 system with a dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, 1366×768 pixels of display resolution, and a 500GB hard drive.

Yeah, I thought you might be interested.

Before digging deeper into the UL30A, I should note that it’s just one member of a full lineup of UnLimited-series notebooks from Asus. In addition to this 13.3″ variant, there are also 12.1″, 14″, and 15.6″ varieties. Those last two sizes have discrete GeForce G 210M graphics options, but they’re not available in North America just yet. In fact, the UL30A seems to be the only UnLimited design that you can currently get stateside.

Based on a little browsing, it looks like there are three UL30A flavors on sale in the US at the moment. At $699 (and currently discounted to $650), Newegg has the UL30A-X1, which features a Core 2 Solo SU3500 processor clocked at 1.4GHz. Spending $750 bumps you up an X3 model that appears to be identical to the X1 with one exception: instead of running the single-core SU3500, it has a dual-core SU7300. The SU7300 ticks along at 1.3GHz, so it has a slower clock speed than the SU3500, but one more core. Both chips house 3MB of L2 cache and are designed to ride an 800MHz front-side bus. The SU7300 is also present in the UL30A-A1, which looks to be an X3 with a 500GB hard drive, and currently sells for between $750 and $800.

With decent CPU options under the bonnet (sorry, too much Top Gear), the UL30A seems like a prime candidate for Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset. However, Asus apparently thinks the GeForce 9400M is better deployed in Ion guise paired with an anemic Atom processor, which is sort of like strapping a lawnmower engine to the chassis from a Lotus Elise. Instead of teaming the UL30A’s CULV processors with an equally sporty chipset, Asus has tapped the equivalent of a generic four-door sedan: Intel’s GS45 Express.

The GS45 isn’t all bad, I suppose. It has a GMA 4500MHD graphics component capable of accelerating high-definition VC-1 and H.264 video playback. MPEG2 decode assist curiously isn’t supported, though. I wouldn’t get your hopes up about gaming, either. The 4500MHD has enough grunt to handle all the fancy cosmetic effects in Windows 7, but in-game frame rates are lackluster at best and dismal at worst.

Processor Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-800 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel GS45 Express
Graphics Integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD with 64MB
dedicated memory
Display 13.3″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and
LED backlight
Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 2.5″ 5,400-RPM
hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 VGA
1 HDMI
1 RJ45 10/100
Ethernet via Atheros AR8132

1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input

Expansion slots

1 SD/SDHC/MMC/MS/MSPRO/xD
Communications

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9285

Input devices “Full size” keyboard
Trackpad with
multi-touch scrolling
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 12.7″ x 9.0″ x 0.9-1.1″ (323 mm x 229
mm x 22.9-27.9 mm)
Weight 3.7 lbs (1.7 kg)
Battery 8-cell Li-Ion 84Wh

Intel’s ICH9M south bridge chip is paired with the GS45, providing basic connectivity and I/O functionality. On the wireless front, Asus uses an Atheros adapter that can tune in to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. I don’t imagine many users will miss the ability to connect to 802.11a Macolyte networks. However, the absence of Bluetooth support will definitely irk some. Bluetooth comes standard on plenty of sub-$500 netbooks, making its absence on a $750 notebook all the more glaring. To be fair, Asus does list Bluetooth as an optional feature for the UL30A; it’s just not available on any of the configs currently selling.

If your home network uses Gigabit Ethernet, you might also be disappointed in the UL30A’s 10/100 wired networking component. 100Mbps is still plenty of bandwidth for the vast majority of users, but I expect that Asus could have inexpensively added GigE to the mix. Given the number of networking chips it buys for motherboards, Asus surely gets a sweet volume discount on GigE silicon.

Otherwise, the UL30A’s spec sheet looks rather unremarkable. Well, except for the eight-cell battery, of course. More on that in a moment, but first, a closer look at the system.

Ooooh, brushed aluminum

Although its spec sheet looks a little dull, the UL30A certainly doesn’t. The first thing you’ll notice is easily the brushed aluminum top panel, which makes the system look a lot pricier than it actually is. Well, when the lid’s closed, at least.

More importantly, the lightly textured finish won’t pick up fingerprints and smudges like glossy plastics. This ensures that the subtle industrial styling looks good even after being handled all day.

With dimensions of 12.7″ x 9.2″ x 0.58-0.97″ (322 mm x 233 mm x 14.8-24.6 mm), the UL30A is most certainly larger than a netbook. It’s heavier, too, at 3.7 lbs (1.7 kg). I think Asus’ latest still qualifies as an ultraportable, though.

There’s really no hard-and-fast rule that defines an ultraportable notebook, just like there isn’t one that formalizes the distinction between netbooks and traditional notebooks. Such classifications are largely unimportant, anyway. The UL30A is light enough to easily carry around all day and small enough to fit in most reasonably sized briefcases and backpacks. You can’t stuff it into a purse, but that’s just fine by me.

Interestingly, the UL30A’s proportions almost exactly match those of Acer’s 13.3″ Aspire Timeline. The Asus system is a little thinner, yet also slightly deeper, resulting in a taller profile when the two are opened up. Even with its additional two battery cells, the UL30A is still just 0.2 lbs heavier than the six-cell Timeline. Here’s how the two look side by side and, er, on top of each other:

I told you they were about the same size. Both are 13.3″ thin-and-lights based on similar Intel CULV processors, so I suppose that’s to be expected.

A closer look at the cockpit

Before you think Asus has realized the perils of glossy black plastic, check out the bezel surrounding the UL30A’s display. Yep, glossy black plastic—and for no apparent reason other than to create distracting reflections around the screen that are interrupted only by your own smudged fingerprints.

As if that weren’t enough, the display itself has a layer of gloss, too. This transreflective coating produces cleaner, crisper colors than matte displays, which tend to look a little grainy in comparison. However, the glossy coating also creates subtle reflections on dark backgrounds, even under normal indoor lighting with the screen’s brightness cranked.

Luminescence is provided by an LED backlight that gives the UL30A’s 13.3″ panel plenty of shine. The screen isn’t quite as bright as the blinding display on my Eee PC 1000HA, but it’s comparable to the one in Acer’s Timeline. Like the Timeline, the UL30A’s screen offers 1366×768 pixels, which is more than enough to play back 720p HD video content at full resolution. I can certainly understand why some folks would prefer having more vertical pixels with a 1280×800 resolution. However, an extra 32 vertical pixels is only just barely enough height for two lines of TR text—that’s not going to save you much scrolling.

As an Excel junkie and Henry Rollins fan, I don’t mind trading a little height for additional width. Besides, 1366×768 offers 25,000 more pixels than 1280×800.

The UL30A’s screen swings on a sturdy hinge that feels nice and tight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tilt all the way back, stopping at just about exactly a 45-degree angle. This wouldn’t be an issue if the display had great viewing angles, but they’re only average, so you really need to be looking at the screen dead-on to get the best picture.

Acer’s 13.3″ Timeline has a similar tilt limitation, except it can only lean back about 40 degrees. I guess that makes the Asus an improvement. A screen without such an arbitrary limitation seems like a better solution, though.

Moving from the UL30A’s visual interface to more touchy feely ones, we come across the system’s chiclet-style keyboard. As writers, we’re particularly, um, particular about keyboards. But we appear to be in the minority, because it feels like keyboard quality has actually gone downhill over the last year or so. In fact, I’ve yet to encounter a budget ultraportable with a better keyboard than the scissor-switch unit on my $400, nearly year-old Eee PC.

The UL30A gives the Eee PC a run for its money, though. At first, I thought the keyboard might use rubber dome switches. But the more I use the UL30A, the more I suspect that scissor switches lie under each chiclet. I’d pry one off to be sure, but they’re securely affixed. Regardless of the switches used, key travel is excellent, with a good amount of initial resistance. One weakness is the relative lack of feedback at the end of each key’s travel. Another? Some visual flex when you poke just about any key not directly on the outer border of the keyboard.

Total keyboard area Alpha keys
Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 298 mm 105 mm 31,290 mm² 169 mm 54 mm 9,126 mm²
Versus full size 104% 95% 99% 98% 95% 93%

At least the keyboard’s area is quite generous. The total area is nearly the same as the “full-size” reference we use from an old 14″ Dell notebook of mine. I tend to think that the size of the alpha key area, which stretches from the outer edges of the A and L keys on the horizontal and the T and V keys on the vertical, is a more important measurement of keyboard cramping, or a lack thereof. After all, the alpha keys are where your fingers spend most of their time. Zoning in on the letter keys, the UL30A again measures nearly full size.

Having a spacious keyboard probably isn’t a concern for some folks, but it matters to those of us with large, clumsy hands. My girlfriend refers to mine as “meat paws,” and they have plenty of room on the UL30A’s keyboard, even hammering away at full speed.

I found it quite easy to get my typing up to speed on the UL30A. Part of the credit goes to the keyboard’s size, but the spacing and finish count for a lot, too. The key caps are textured rather than glossy, which, combined with clear separation between the keys themselves, makes it easy to keep one’s fingers properly anchored to the home row. I didn’t have many problems getting my hands centered in the dark, either, although I’d still prefer a backlit keyboard. The fact that more manufacturers haven’t embraced keyboard lighting boggles my mind. Apple figured it out a long time ago.

Before moving on from the keyboard, I should note one layout quirk involving the infamous right shift key. Unlike some older Eee PC keyboards, the shift key is in the correct spot. However, it’s also a little narrower than usual to make room for full-size arrow keys in a traditional inverted-T layout. I like the compromise because I’m not a huge fan of half-height directional keys. Still, that hasn’t stopped me from cursing when I accidentally punch the up arrow instead of right shift when trying to enter double quotes. Of course, proper typing technique probably dictates that I should be using the left shift key for that character, so the problem is more with me than the UL30A’s keyboard.

Just under the keyboard sits the requisite multi-touch trackpad. This Elan unit supports two-finger horizontal and vertical scrolling, but not pinch zooming or fancy other functions. You can adjust the sensitivity of the PalmTracking feature, which ignores what it deems to be inadvertent or unintentional trackpad contact, or choose to disable the trackpad completely with a keyboard shortcut.

The trackpad’s single button nicely handles left and right clicks on either side. However, I’m not crazy about the dimpled surface of the trackpad itself. In aerodynamic applications, such as golf balls and high-end bicycle components, dimples are used to cut turbulence and reduce drag. They have somewhat of an opposite effect here, imparting a subtle resistance that makes the trackpad’s surface feel a tad slow and just the slightest bit tacky at times.

That said, the dimples do a good job of differentiating the trackpad area from the palm rests. The palm rests are glossy silver plastic that, in part thanks to an inconspicuous pattern under the gloss, doesn’t seem to show fingerprints or smudges. I’d prefer more brushed aluminum, of course, but this is a budget ultraportable, after all.

Connectivity and expansion options

So we’ve covered the UL30A’s physical interfaces, but what about how it talks to other devices? The system has a decent array of connectivity options, most of which can be found on its left and right edges.

Over on the right Asus has provided an Ethernet port, audio jacks, and a couple of USB ports. Also included is the requisite multi-format memory card reader. You don’t get an optical drive, though. That will surely be a deal-breaker for some, but it suits me just fine. I’d rather not have an optical drive taking up space in the chassis.

Around the left side lie the system’s third USB port and its video outputs. The included HDMI port is a nice touch, especially if you plan on regularly using an external display or having the UL30A double as your home theater PC.

In addition to some venting on its underbelly, the UL30A has an exhaust port located along the system’s left edge. The fan behind this venting rarely comes on, and when it does, the noise produced is barely audible. Budget ultraportables hardly have a reputation for being loud, but Asus definitely has the quietest one I’ve tested.

With 4GB of memory in both of the configurations available at Newegg right now, you probably won’t be popping new DIMMs into the UL30A. But you quite easily could, given the access provided to the system’s internals. The hard drive bay is also readily accessible, should you wish to swap out the stock 500GB mechanical drive for an SSD.

You can easily swap out the battery, too, although you shouldn’t need to very often. The UL30A ships with an eight-cell battery rated for 84Wh. To put that into perspective, consider that the 13.3″ Aspire Timeline has a six-cell battery rated for just 56Wh. The UL30A’s battery has 33% more cells and 50% more watt-hours than the Timeline’s. No wonder Asus is so bullish about battery life.

We’ll get to some real-world battery life tests in a moment, but first, I have a bone to pick about the battery itself. I love having a higher-capacity battery on an ultraportable, especially since this one doesn’t add all that much weight or bulge dramatically from the chassis. However, the battery’s fit is a little, well, loose.

Don’t worry; it’s not like the battery is prone to falling out or otherwise disconnecting itself from the system. But the fact that you can rock the battery back and forth a little bit when it’s supposedly locked into place is a little disconcerting. Heck, even my Eee PC’s battery doesn’t budge when it’s attached, and that’s just a lowly netbook.

I noticed the loose battery right away, and that initially left me a little suspicious of the UL30A’s build quality. After spending more than a week with the system, though, I’m considerably more optimistic. The UL30A’s chassis does flex a little when you hold the system up by one of its front corners, but there’s less give than on the Aspire Timeline. Everything else on the Asus unit feels nice and tight, causing me to wonder if the eight-cell battery was perhaps a late addition to the design or even lifted from another member of the UnLimited notebook family.

Should you encounter any issues with the UL30A, Asus covers everything but the battery with a two-year warranty. The battery’s coverage runs out after the first year, which is a bit of a drag. Asus does have a zero-bright-dot policy for the LCD that’s good for 30 days from the date of purchase, though.

Our testing methods

We’ve tested a number of netbooks and budget ultraportables over the last little while, and we’ll be comparing the UL30A’s performance and battery life to the lot of ’em. Some of those systems run slower when unplugged, so we’ve tested them on both wall and battery power. The UL30A doesn’t give up any performance when you yank the cord, so its application performance was tested when plugged in. The same goes for the Aspire Timeline.

Although the Timeline was only tested on wall power, we did run the system through our performance tests with one of its cores disabled to simulate a Core 2 Solo SU3500. These results appear as the Aspire 3810 Timeline (SU3500) in our application performance graphs. We also tested the Timeline’s battery life with and without its Power Saver mode enabled. This power saving mode doesn’t impact application performance, though.

The UL30A has fancy power-saving modes, too, and the most aggressive among them actually caps the processor speed at 800MHz. That’s definitely going to affect application performance, so we ran the Asus system through the gauntlet in both Battery Saving mode and with the processor ramping up to full speed.

With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System

Acer Aspire One 751h


Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline



Asus UL30A-A1


Gateway LT3103u


MSI X-Slim X340


HP Pavilion dv2


Asus Eee PC 1000H


Samsung NC20
Processor Intel Atom Z520 1.24GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400
1.4GHz

Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300
1.3GHz
AMD Athlon 64 L110 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Solo U3500
1.4GHz
AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
1.6GHz
Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Via Nano ULV 2250 1.3GHz+
System bus 496 MT/s

(124MHz)

800 MT/s

(400MHz)


800 MT/s

(400MHz)

HT 1.6 GT/s

(800MHz)

800 MT/s

(400MHz)

HT 1.6 GT/s

(800MHz)

533 MT/s

(133MHz)

800 MT/s

(200MHz)

North bridge Intel US15W SCH Intel GS45
Intel GS45
AMD RS690M Intel GS45 AMD RS690E Intel 945GSE Via VX800
South bridge Intel ICH9M
Intel ICH9M
AMD SB600 Intel ICH9M AMD SB600 Intel ICH7M Via ID8353
Memory size 2GB (1 DIMM) 4GB (2 DIMMs)
4GB (2 DIMMs)
2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM)
Memory type DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz
DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz
DDR2 SDRAM at 480MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
4 6
6
5 5 5 4

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
4 6
6
5 5 5 4
RAS precharge
(tRP)
4 6
6
5 5 5 4
Cycle time
(tRAS)
15
15
15 18 15 12
Audio codec Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5817 drivers
Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5807 drivers

Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5898 drivers
Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5854 drivers
Realtek ALC888S codec
with 6.0.1.5804 drivers

IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers Realtek
ALC6628
with 5.10.0.5683 drivers
Realtek codec
with

5.10.0.5740 drivers

Graphics Intel GMA 500 with 7.14.10.1005 drivers Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1666 drivers
Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1752 drivers
ATI Radeon X1270 with
8.561.0.0 drivers
Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1599 drivers ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with
6.14.10.4926 drivers
Via Chrome9 IGP with
6.14.10.182 drivers

Hard drive
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
250GB 5,400 RPM
Toshiba

HDD2HD21
500GB 5,400 RPM

Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
250GB
5,400 RPM
Fujitsu MJA2320BH 320GB
5,400 RPM
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB
5,400 RPM
Samsung Spinpoint M
HM160HI 5,400RPM

Operating system
Windows 7

RC x86



Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 2



Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x86 with Service Pack 2
Windows 7 RC x86

Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x86 with Service Pack 1


Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 1
Microsoft Windows XP Home
with Service Pack 3
Microsoft Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Performance

We’ve cobbled together a new suite of tests to gauge performance with the sort of basic everyday tasks that occupy most ultraportables. Since mobile browsing is the raison d’être for most of these systems, we’ll kick things off with a couple of browser tests running in Firefox. The first is FutureMark’s Peacekeeper benchmark, which the company says tests JavaScript functions commonly used on websites like YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and others. To test Flash performance, we used the Flash component of the GUIMark rendering benchmark.

Peacekeeper has been updated since we first started gathering notebook performance data, so we don’t have results for all of the systems here. When running at full steam, the UL30A just trails our single-core Aspire Timeline config. That makes sense given that the Asus’ processor is 100MHz slower.

Of course, the more interesting story is what happens when you enable the UL30A’s Battery Saving mode. With its CPU clock speed capped, Peacekeeper performance drops by almost exactly a third.

The Aspire Timeline again proves a little bit faster than the UL30A—or a lot faster, depending on whether you have Asus’ most aggressive power-saving mode enabled. In Battery Saving mode, the UL30A only just scores higher than an Eee PC.

Next up, we have 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark, which tests file compression and decompression performance. We used the 32-bit client and let the test run up to 10 iterations.

Again, the Timeline’s clock speed advantage delivers the win—but only just. Once more, the UL30A’s Battery Saving config turns in a much lower score.

Video playback

Our next batch of tests highlights the UL30A’s video playback performance. The chart below includes approximate CPU utilization percentages gleaned from the Vista Task Manager alongside subjective impressions of actual playback.

I used Windows Media Player to handle our DivX video, QuickTime for the others, and Firefox for our windowed YouTube HD test. QuickTime doesn’t exploit the GMA 4500MHD’s video decoding capabilities, so the CPU will be doing all the work there.

UL30A-A1 UL30A-A1 (Battery
Saving)
CPU utilization Result CPU utilization Result
Star Trek QuickTime 480p 9-17% Perfect 32-77% Perfect
Star Trek QuickTime 720p 24-40% Perfect 57-100% Smooth
Hot Fuzz

QuickTime 1080p

30-73% Perfect 74-100% Some dropped frames, loss of
AV sync*
Hot Fuzz

QuickTime 1080p (MPC-HC)

12-23% Perfect 26-37% Perfect
DivX PAL SD 8-17% Perfect 22-34% Perfect
YouTube HD windowed 43-57% Perfect 74-85% Perfect

In performance mode, playback was perfectly smooth for all five videos. CPU utilization was reasonably low, as well.

Switching to Battery Saving mode increased CPU utilization quite a bit, but that’s to be expected given the associated clock speed drop. Playback was still perfect with our 480p QuickTime movie, our DivX BitTorrent download, and even with YouTube HD. 720p QuickTime content played back smoothly, too, although with the odd stutter here and there. 1080p playback proved more problematic, with noticeable dropped frames and the occasional loss of AV sync.

It seems a little unfair to make the UL30A’s effectively underclocked processor handle all the number crunching associated with HD video decoding when the GMA 4500MHD is designed to handle such a task. Media Player Classic Home Cinema supports the Graphics Media Accelerator’s video decode mojo, and as a free download, it’s worth a shot. I primarily tested with MPC-HC in Battery Saving mode, but I observed much lower CPU utilization with our three QuickTime movies. Even at 1080p, CPU usage didn’t exceed 37%. Playback was perfectly smooth at all three resolutions, as well.

Battery life

Each system’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a ~30% screen brightness setting on the Eee PC, which is easily readable under normal indoor lighting. That brightness level is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness setting we used on the dv2, LT3103, Aspire One 751, and UL30A. The 50% brightness levels on the X-Slim and Timeline are the closest to the Eee PC’s 30% setting, so that’s what we used for those units. However, the Timeline’s Power Saving mode does lower the system’s brightness slightly.

Note that the Samsung NC20 we tested was a foreign model; domestic units have a 15% larger battery. Also, we didn’t test the NC20 in its manually-invoked “max battery” mode. For both of these reasons, you could surely achieve longer run times with an NC20 than what you’ll see below. See our NC20 review for more details.

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this test.

Our web surfing test is pretty demanding, but the UL30A still managed nearly 10 hours of run time when in Battery Saving mode. Even in performance mode, the system ran for seven-and-a-half hours—two more than the best our Timeline config had to offer.

Interestingly, the UL30A’s battery life is much shorter in our movie playback test, likely because the hard drive is constantly in use streaming the movie. You’d think, with 4GB of RAM at its disposal, Windows would just load the ~700MB video clip into memory and shut down the hard drive. Guess not.

While the UL30A’s edge over the Timeline isn’t as dramatic here, the Asus still runs for about and hour and a half longer. There isn’t much of an advantage to switching to Battery Saving mode, though.

External operating temperatures

External operating temperatures were measured with an IR thermometer placed 1″ from the surface of the system. Tests were conducted after the UL30A had run our web surfing battery life test for a couple of hours.

The UL30A is a little warmer in its top-left corner, near where all the hot air hits the exhaust port. Otherwise, the system runs pretty cool. I’ve had it on my lap for a couple of hours now, and my thighs are only slightly warm.

Day-to-day with an all-day notebook

When I first booted the UL30A, I was surprised to see that it comes pre-loaded with Windows Vista Home Premium x86. Asus went through the trouble of outfitting this configuration with 4GB of RAM, but it settled on an operating system that won’t take full advantage of that amount of memory. Fortunately, the UL30A qualifies for a Windows 7 upgrade. You should be able to step up to an x64 flavor of Microsoft’s new OS, although you’ll probably have to do a clean install—in-place x86-to-x64 upgrades don’t appear to be supported.

If Windows isn’t your thing, the UL30A also has a nearly instant-on OS in the form of ExpressGate. This alternative desktop has only limited functionality, but you can browse the web, play music, view photos, access IM networks, and run Skype. Personally, I’d rather wait a minute for a fully functional Windows desktop configured just how I like it.

As one might expect, Asus has packed a healthy dose of extraneous trialware and other applications onto the UL30A. The volume of bloat isn’t as obscene as what’s been infecting Acer systems of late, but there’s plenty of fat to trim. Do keep Asus’ Power4Gear Hybrid software, though.

This app defines four power-saving profiles that one can easily cycle through by hitting a button just above the top left-hand corner of the keyboard. Users have a measure of control over each profile’s display brightness, enabled devices, processor clock speed, and even things like the gadget bar and desktop background. The slider that controls the maximum processor state isn’t nearly as effective as one might hope, though. Setting it to run at 100% works, clocking the UL30A’s SU7300 processor at 1.3GHz with a 6.5X multiplier and 800MHz front-side bus. However, anything below 100% produces an improbable 1.6GHz clock speed via an 8X CPU multiplier, still on an 800MHz front-side bus, at least according to the latest version of CPU-Z.

It turns out that CPU-Z is correctly reporting the CPU multiplier and front-side bus speed. Asus says the UL30A uses “N by 2 tech” to halve the output of the system’s clock generator before applying the CPU multiplier. With the clock generator outputting 200MHz, dividing by two and multiplying by eight yields an 800MHz core clock.

I’ve asked Asus for some additional clarification, but it looks like you really only have two options for the CPU: let it run up to full speed and have SpeedStep handle throttling or lock it down to 800MHz. The latter option is the default configuration for the UL30A’s Battery Saving mode.

I spent a lot of time with the UL30A in Battery Saving mode, and even though the system feels noticeably slower with its clock speed capped, it’s still far more responsive than an Atom-powered netbook, especially when multitasking. Our sample’s dual-core processor certainly adds a dose of creamy smoothness, even if it isn’t running at full speed, but a single-core config may be less forgiving.

These performance impressions matter, because every time someone asks me about whether they should buy a netbook, I have to prime their expectations by explaining the attached limitations. That isn’t much of an issue with CULV hardware that has ample horsepower for much more than just basic web surfing, word processing, and video playback.

The Intel platform’s only real shortcoming is with gaming, where the GMA 4500MHD can’t push pixels fast enough for fluid frame rates in non-casual, er, real games. You know, stuff like Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty, and GRID.

In fact, even MMOs are a bit of a stretch. With little on-screen action, World of Warcraft is sluggish at native resolution with low detail levels. Drop to 800×600 and gameplay is smooth enough to be playable, although again, that’s just wandering around where the demo dumps new players. Massive raids will probably bring the GMA to its knees.

Lego Batman is just tolerable for me at 800×600 with low details. Games don’t typically offer lower resolutions with 16:9 aspect ratios, so most titles are going to end up looking squished on the Ul30A’s screen.

Even Geometry Wars has to be run at a relatively low 800×600 resolution. Of course, this title was designed for the Xbox 360, which is a different league than any Graphics Media Accelerator in terms of graphics horsepower. Heck, the Wii probably spits out pixels faster than the 4500MHD.

At least the UL30A can run Audiosurf with the second-highest detail levels at native resolution. That’s enough to keep me entertained for good while, so it’s even better that the game remains playable in Battery Saving mode.

Conclusions

I’m chomping at the bit to replace my Eee PC with a more powerful budget ultraportable. Unfortunately, each of the systems currently on the market has attributes that have stopped me from pulling the trigger. The UL30A, at least so far, is no exception.

Maybe the loose battery tarnished my image of the system early, but it’s something I can’t stop noticing. The dimpled trackpad hasn’t grown on me, either, and I fail to understand why Bluetooth isn’t included on at least the A1 variant we tested today. This is a $750 dual-core configuration, after all. I’d say it deserves Gigabit Ethernet, too.

That’s it for complaints, and I’m seriously contemplating whether any are really deal-breakers for me, because the UL30A is easily my favorite budget ultraportable. Like MSI’s X-Slim, there’s a slickness to the UnLimited design that feels more expensive than a typical budget notebook. Plus, brushed aluminum. Drool.

While I can’t help but feel like the keyboard is a step back from the one on my Eee PC, it’s still pretty decent. I could live with the keyboard, at least, if not happily ever after, then satisfactorily. That’s more than can be said for the frustratingly vague, slippery, and fingerprint-prone glossy keyboards floating around on competing systems.

But really, it’s the battery life that makes the UL30A. The eight-cell unit doesn’t add much weight, yet it offers best-in-class run times even with CPU ticking along at full speed. And then there’s the Battery Saving mode, which ran our Wi-Fi web surfing test for nearly 10 hours. Even with this config capping the CPU at 800MHz, the UL30A is still perky enough for HD video playback, casual gaming, and the usual basic desktop stuff. I’d expect single-core models like the UL30A-X1 to offer even better battery life, too.

Asus UL30A
September 2009

The X1 will only set you back $650 at Newegg right now, which is an absolute steal for what can credibly claim to be an all-day ultraportable. Dropping an extra $100 on the dual-core X3 is a harder sell, but you can get the A1 model for almost the same price with a 500GB hard drive. The A1 is still exceptional value considering it offers battery life that a precious few ultraportables can match. Systems with similar battery life either cost significantly more or offer much slower performance. The UL30A manages to balance cost, performance, and battery life neatly, and that’s what pushes it over the top and into Editor’s Choice territory.

Comments closed
    • LiamC
    • 10 years ago

    +1for TR doing a review of the dm3 if they can get one

    edit: D’oh! was reply to #31

    • rUmX
    • 10 years ago

    Horde? Eww… Alliance all the way!

    Oh, why would you play *any* game at 800×600 on a widescreen display? The lowest I would go on these notebooks at 1280×800, and if that isn’t the native resolution, everything looks like crap.

      • Skrying
      • 10 years ago

      I’m going to guess 800×600 is about the performance implications. Also, none of these notebooks have a resolution at 1280×800, that’s because 1280×800 is a 16:10 aspect ratio. These, and nearly all newer laptops for that matter, are 16:9. Giving us a 1366×768 resolution.

    • dragmor
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve got to stand up for the dimpled trackpad, its much more natural and easy to use than the standard flat embedded ones. You feel the edge without bumping into them and at least on my HP they included a slight gap for the scroll section so you don’t have to look.

    • mattthemuppet
    • 10 years ago

    I wonder at what point battery life ceases to be an important metric for most people? Even at 9.5h, would that be enough for a full working day if the processor is placed under any sort of load? Enough to risk not having the power adapter handy?

    I’m still very happy with my 3810T Timeline though, even with the slightly annoying glossy keyboard and stiff unibutton mouse button. Are there any UL30 models with SSD? The $800 SSD equipped model I have is a steal, and potentially enough to make up for the lower battery life, re the UL30, for some. Still, 7 1/2h of normal working life isn’t bad 🙂

    • Dave_N
    • 10 years ago

    Hi,

    I have a bit of confusion about the SU7300. I realize that it is a dual core processor, but I believe it is a dual 32 bit processor. Is this correct? If I were to purchase, I think I would wipe and re-install windows 7 to get its performance benefits.

    But can anyone confirm whether the SU7300 is dual 32 bit core or dual 64 bit core.

    • thesaint
    • 10 years ago

    intel graphics?
    no thanks.

    • UberGerbil
    • 10 years ago

    Geoff: your image for the external temp readings shows the temp values in both Fahrenheit and Celsius but labels them both “C”

    • odizzido
    • 10 years ago

    This notebook is unusable. The keyboard gets to 90C. I can’t even imagine what the internal temperature is.

    Aside from that if you had shown me this laptop a few years ago I would have been very interested, however the smallest one at 12 inches seems really big to me these days after using 10 inch ones.

      • Lans
      • 10 years ago

      I was worried about the keyboard side temperatures myself. The under side is not great but has been silently tolerated by vast majority of users… Unlike most people, I do have same worries about internal temps and its affect on component/laptop life though (well reinforced after having a few laptops dying)…

      I don’t know about others but I generally rest my palms on the spots that are 86/88C for this laptop… based on holding a cup of hot water from water dispensers / coffee makers which is generally around 90C, 88C is definitely not somewhere I want/can keep my palms for more than a min or so. The keys might be a less of an issue as most people don’t hold them for more than a sec or two.

      On the other hand (pun intended), it could serve as a good reminder that your battery is draining too fast. XD

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 10 years ago

      There’s obviously a typographical error here.

      Anything over 60

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        Yes, it’s an obvious typo. There are two numbers listed, both with C for units. The larger number is obviously the Fahrenheit equivalent temp, as an F-C conversion shows. So yes, there’s a units typo in the images.

          • dpaus
          • 10 years ago

          I’d be damned impressed by the eight-cell battery that could keep that unit at 90 degrees C for 10 hours! The hell with using as a netbook, pack it in with the arctic survival gear!

    • Skrying
    • 10 years ago

    It would have been great if Asus could have fit the UL80V hardware inside this UL30A. The main benefit being the GeForce G 210M graphics with switchable to GMA 4500MHD.

    It’s frustrating to see a manufacturer not have a secured battery. There was a Sony model a few years back that had a battery that could literally come off the laptop body if it was moved quickly. At least this Asus unit isn’t that bad. Still mind blowing and indicative of the design process these systems go through.

    It would have been nice to see Asus clean up the port areas. From the side the Acer looks much cleaner and professional. I would also apply this to the feet of the Asus. Simply put the Acer looks like a much better built system, even if it has more flex.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    What’s it weigh?

      • Palek
      • 10 years ago

      What’s wrong with MadManOriginal?

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        All your memes are belong to us!

      • Lans
      • 10 years ago

      EDIT: It is listed here at 1.7 kg (3.7 lbs) with 8-cell battery.

      Other sites have it listed at 1.5kg (3.3 lbs) r[<(probably with a 6-cell battery?)<]r.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 10 years ago

    This notebook almost has everything I’m looking for and it would’ve been mine if it had a decent GPU.

    sigh… still waiting for that perfect notebook.

    • Igor_Kavinski
    • 10 years ago

    Ahem. Page 1 (Top Right) of this article lists Acer as the manufacturer.

    • UberGerbil
    • 10 years ago

    g[

    • micksh6
    • 10 years ago

    You didn’t test Youtube HD full screen?

    • cygnus1
    • 10 years ago

    The HP Athlon Neo dm3 sounds like a better deal. Maybe half the battery life, but $200 less for the same form factor and slightly better specs. Even the intel dm3 is $100 cheaper than the Asus, and those are basically identical.

    I would love to see a review of the dm3 when it becomes available.

      • cygnus1
      • 10 years ago
      • Skrying
      • 10 years ago

      – Half the battery life is a really big deal. Massive in fact, you’ve just basically discounted one of the most important aspects of Asus UL30A.

      – Slightly better specs? In what regard? Yes, better video capabilities. But I would venture to say the processor in the HP dm3 will be slower in nearly all benchmarks. Which actually is a big deal considering how stressed these processors are when playing high quality Flash (YouTube, Hulu) and video formats that lack GPU acceleration.

        • cygnus1
        • 10 years ago

        You really think the 1.3GHz Pentium SU7300 in the UL30A is going to be appreciably faster than a 1.6GHz Athlon Neo or 1.3GHz Pentium SU4100 processor (the two known options for the dm3)? Keep in mind, all three are dual core.

        I think the nearly 25% clockspeed advantage of the Neo will make any architectural benefits the Pentium may have a wash. Also the Neo based dm3 has dramatically better integrated video.

        Also, I’d imagine HP will have extended batteries as an option.

          • Skrying
          • 10 years ago

          Yes, the on board graphics are better but where are they really going to help you out? Even the lowly 4500MHD has video acceleration support. About the only area it really matters is WoW becomes playable. Not really a big deal to me.

          It is especially not a big deal when the main advantage this Asus notebook has is its battery life. Truly an all day battery. The Neo based dm3 is simply not going to reach those battery life numbers and will likely have at best equal levels of CPU performance.

          It’s an inferior product for my needs. Or better yet… it still keeps a major flaw but just changes the location of that flaw. It no longer as the Intel graphics but now has the much worse battery life. Clearly a system that has proper graphics and a CULV processor and the same level of battery life is possible. This product is called the UL80V and it’s even made by Asus. They simply decided to put it into a 14″ chassis. I more than believe that a bit of extra effort (effort that would clean up the port area, fix the battery fit issues) would have all that was needed to put those components inside a 13.3″ chassis.

            • Lans
            • 10 years ago

            Actually the dm3 with SU4100 is quoted with upto 10hrs of battery life with a standard 6-cell battery (vs. upto 12hrs with 8-cells) so it should have “*[

            • Skrying
            • 10 years ago

            We were talking about the AMD processor equipped dm3. This should have been clear because of the battery life talk AND the graphics card talk. The AMD dm3 is the only model with a price advantage as well.

            • cygnus1
            • 10 years ago

            Correct. That’s why I want a tech report review of the Neo powered dm3. I’d really like to know about the build quality, trackpad, keyboard, real world battery usage and real world advantage of the ATI graphics. If it doesn’t make more games playable, I’ll probably spend the extra $100 to get the intel dm3. Or maybe even this Asus.

            • Lans
            • 10 years ago

            Besides that I am waiting to see much of the 6hrs can the Neo X2 dm3 get for active time. If it is 3 or 4 hrs then it is just right for me; nice to have more but I am not going to shell over $100+ for once in a blue moon chance of actually running out of battery without a plug around.

            Of course, based on the numbers in this review, they could probably cut the battery size on the UL30A for 3lbs or so and that would be sweeter for me (lighter and maybe a bit cheaper).

            • Skrying
            • 10 years ago

            This means you have to carry around the power adapter. That is simply not a solution for me. When I grab my laptop I want just my laptop. I don’t want anything extra to have to be tethered to it in order to complete it. This is why the true all day battery life numbers are important to me.

            This is especially true because no one wants to pay attention to the adapter. Besides Apple every brick out there is the exact same and the exact same annoying design that doesn’t help you tidy up its bundle of cables.

            • Lans
            • 10 years ago

            Okay maybe not in your case but my point is you would be constantly carrying extra weight with a larger battery than what you really need. And I think more people should reconsider.

            Personally I would choose the battery size that allows me to never have to worry about plugging in for 95+% of the time and worry about power adapter on those off chances I may need it (i.e. I don’t bring power adapter 95+% of the time). Especially since batteries are much heavier than power adapters.

            3+ hrs is the 95+% mark for me.

            • indeego
            • 10 years ago

            Remember this is battery life fresh. You will not see the same hours of life after one year of use, and progressively it will get worse, especially if you use the battery heavily/not enough/”wrong”.

            I am working off a laptop that once held 8.5 hours firm and it’s now down to 6-7 after 2 years useg{<.<}g

            • Lans
            • 10 years ago

            I was replying to:

            “/[

            • cygnus1
            • 10 years ago

            Dang, I didn’t see the option for intel CULV + amd/nvidia (good) integrated graphics. That’s a very intriguing combo. I wonder what the battery life and performance of that would be…

        • Lans
        • 10 years ago

        You are sort of right on youtube and Hulu but only for DV2 and most likely not DM3 (short of it, yes you do need a beefy CPU):

        §[<https://techreport.com/articles.x/16783/7<]§ "/[

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    “And you’d be getting that from a $750 system with a dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, 1366×768 pixels of display resolution, and a 320GB hard drive.”

    But the spec listing says 500G driveg{

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    Needs a better warrantyg{<.<}g

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